Not every video game you sit down to play that exists within an established franchise has to be some big reinvention or revolutionary step forward. Sometimes the best kind of iteration greases the wheel of some aging mechanics, adds a few new swaths of color and drops a few new bits of gameplay to keep the franchise from diving into stagnation. Borderlands 3 is largely this kind of game. Unlike Gears 5 which takes that series in bold and exciting directions new to the franchise, Borderlands 3 opts for a more subtle approach towards the new ideas it brings to the table. It’s still very much like every main line title that has come before it but with just enough twists and additions to an already winning formula that still makes it one of the most enjoyable and fun experiences you’re likely to have in front of the TV.
If you’re not familiar with the Borderlands series, it landed in 2009 with a rather loud bang. Its distinct art style, hybridization of the first-person shooter with the mechanics of a loot farming title ala the Diablo series really gave way to some new interesting ideas in a style of game that had largely been dominated by the likes of Call Of Duty. Another thing the series used to separate itself from the pack was its rather bratty and profane sense of humor. While it never dipped its toes too far into the muddy waters like say Duke Nukem, its brash writing and foul-mouthed characters lent a breath of fresh air to stale super serious anti-hero characters we had been seeing a lot of in FPS games at the time.
Flash forward to today and several sequels later, Borderlands has become of one the more widely recognized titles and the anticipation for this latest sequel was running high. There was some online scuttlebutt about questionable tactics on the part of Gearbox Studio’s CEO Randy Pitchford and publisher 2K Entertainment, but I didn’t really let it get in the way of my excitement. I’m glad because Borderlands 3 is every bit the amazing sequel that was promised with a few minor irritants that don’t ultimately detract from the overall experience.
Not much has been changed, but what we we’re given has been refined to the point of perfection. The distinct cell shaded art style looks much better on current generation consoles that can now run graphics engines at 4K resolutions and buttery smooth 60 frames per second animations. While it doesn’t have the jaw dropping wow factor of some current triple A titles, it’s definitely no slouch either.
The humor is largely intact as well. Some of the jokes fall flat and might be slightly cringe in this much more PC culture we find ourselves in, but nothing is so off the mark that it makes you stop and take issue. The “looter shooter” style is also alive and well. One improved aspect I’ve noticed almost right away were the drop rates. Borderlands has multiple levels of loot divided up by rarity ranging from standard to legendary status. Those legendary weapons were traditionally extremely hard to find and required monotonous amount of grinding and farming in order to acquire them. They dramatically improved the loot drop rates so that the game is certainly more generous with its harder to find and consequently more worthwhile stuff. It removes a certain mysterious aura surrounding the more mythical weapons in the game, but it gives players a lot more incentive for repeat playthroughs.
Another quick thing to address is the difficulty spike. It’s not hugely pronounced, but once your character levels past 20, the enemies turn into bullet sponges and walking tanks. The difficulty itself isn’t always enjoyable especially when you die over 20 times trying to get past one boss battle just to advance the story. However, this forces you to think more strategically and be on your toes at all times. The enemy AI isn’t a slouch; they’re very smart and are primed to expend every last one of their bullets to shuffle your mortal coil into the next life. They are just as aware of their surroundings as you are and very craftily tuck and roll and dodge and hide behind cover all while expending whole clips of ammunition to try and kill you. Having to approach any given situation from a different angle using different combinations of weapons and support items while the level around you is just as adversarial as the monsters you’re fighting makes you realize that this has gone far beyond a standard shooter.
The plot is in all honesty kind of a wash. It’s not that it’s a badly told story or an un-interesting one, it just feels inconsequential and devoid of any real heft or weight. I get that this is just a video game and that people like me probably shouldn’t be deep diving into any sort of extra or hidden meaning but it just feels like a kind of lost opportunity to tell a special story in what feels like the capper on the whole series. There’s a certainly level of finality woven into the plot’s fabric that gives this particular title a sense of being a sendoff over just another in a long line of cash grab sequels. I can’t go into spoilers for those of you who haven’t yet had the chance to play or get this far but I will say this is one wild coaster ride that everyone should take at least once. Tears swill be shed, some laughs will be had and there is a sense of finality to the end of it that isn’t a cliffhanger or a tacked-on teaser for the next chapter in the franchise. In the end the story ultimately serves its purpose, but you don’t play a game like Borderlands 3 for its rich and thought provoking thematics. You come here to shoot guns, watch bad guys explode in geysers of blood and guts and raid their corpses for the best loot. So yes, the plot feels razor thin with some exceptionally annoying characterizations in the form of the main antagonists, but its core gameplay and mechanics are so damn good and perfect that they over shadow almost all of its short comings.
In the end, Borderlands 3 is the best possible Borderlands sequel we could’ve hoped for. This is not a series known for its reinventing the wheel or radical re-design for the sake of staying fresh and mainstream. Gearbox Studios knows its audience, knows what type of game you’ve come here to play and 100 percent feeds you exactly what you’re looking for. The art direction has never looked better, especially with the current standard of hardware we’re all working with. The gameplay mechanics feel more fluid and natural than ever even with all of the new albeit small additions to some quality of life stuff. The almost ungodly amount of loot contained within the game guarantees you’ll never run across the same type of weapon more than once. The boss battles are tough but ultimately fun and rewarding. The overt references to modern pop culture are a nice addition especially to the nerds out there into this kind of stuff. I really try not to put a numerical score at the end of my reviews because I feel like reactions to these many different forms of art are almost possible to contain in a singular metric such as an “out of 10” scale of judgement. Borderlands 3 would be a solid 8 out of 10. There is plenty of technical issues and “bugs” to address in the software that could ruin your experience, but the game just barely came out a week ago. I would very highly recommend this game to not only people who co-op with their friends but like going on a solo adventure as well. The flaws are not glaring enough to detract from the experience. This is a title that grabs you in every way that it can and refuses to let go. So go along for the ride… EVEN if you’ve never played a Borderlands game this is still an excellent chapter in its own right. Borderlands 3 is the peak of the looter shooter.